November 12, 2019By legaltranslationsTranslations Tips

The Basics of a Legal Translation


A legal translation stands out as the most important type of translation. This is because the legal profession cannot afford to get a legal translation wrong. If it does and there is a mistranslation of a legal document like a contract, patent or affidavit there could be serious repercussions for those affected by the inaccurate legal document translation.

Legal documents that often require translations include:

  • immigration documents;
  • witnesses’ statements;
  • wills;
  • trusts;
  • depositions;
  • litigation documents;
  • legal documents such as contracts and licences, etc.
  • court pleadings like briefs, summonses and judgments,
  • Acts of Parliament, new legislation, laws and case reports;
  • any important legal correspondence

Because translations are so influenced by the cultures of the source and targeted languages, it is important that the translator has expert knowledge in legal terminologies and legal systems in both the two countries. The linguistic structures present in the source language may not have an exact equivalence in the targeted language so the translator has to be conscious of the social, cultural and linguistic equivalence in both the languages.


A legal translator’s key skills should be the following:

  • complete mastery of both the source and targeted languages;
  • in-depth and thorough knowledge of the two cultures’ legal systems;
  • complete knowledge of all the areas of the laws related to the legal concepts in both cultures;
  • good legal translation training.

Legal language is unique

In general, legal language is based on logical rules aimed at achieving consistency and validity in the language used.  Legal English has often called “sublanguage” in itself as it is not the same as plain English. It is the specialized use of specific terminology including words and phrases that just relate to legal language so only those in legal professions understand and use for day to day communication on legal matters.

Sometimes it is called legalese which can only be fully understood by legal professionals and not so easily by the layperson. It is often composed of words that aren’t really required but are just customarily used in legal language. Historically though, legalese has been the language a lawyer may use when drafting a pleading or a contract but it isn’t intended to be used in an oral context.

When it is narrowed down legal writing has a few different genres such as the legal academic writing found in professional legal journals, legal judicial writing used in court judgments, and legal legislative writing used in regulations, laws, treaties and contracts. There are other types of simplified legal language that are commonly utilised by lawyers when communicating verbally with non-legal clients. This requires an easier and friendlier style of writing and verbal communication than what is used predominantly amongst law professionals.

Legal language and translation for the overseas market

For lawyers who have to work in international contexts when communicating with clients, they need to have both transnational legal knowledge as well as transcultural linguistic knowledge. This applies to legal translators too. Lawyers are rarely bilingual so they have to depend on legal translators to do the translation work for them.

When English speaking countries only did business so legal English was the preserve for lawyers from these English-speaking countries, in particular, the United States, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and Kenya. They all share virtually the same law traditions. Today, legal English has increasingly dominated international business and plays a significant role in the E.U. As English speaking businesses and organizations spread to non- English speaking countries then the challenges of legal translations need to be overcome.

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